Online Extra: A Key to Gated Cyber Communities

How rebels at AOL's Nullsoft unit created a program called Waste that allows like-minded surfers to secretly share online

Justin Frankel and his talented band of programmers at America Online's Nullsoft division have definitely earned their reputation as rebellious but brilliant. The team has pumped out innovative technologies that set the pace for the Web, often to the embarrassment of AOL (AOL ) and the delight of techies. Although Frankel & Co. drew acclaim for the groundbreaking Winamp music software that made it a snap to play MP3s and copy them onto a computer, the surreptitious release of peer-to-peer file-sharing network Gnutella in 2000 sealed Frankel's iconic status.

AOL, then in the midst of its merger with Time Warner, removed the software from Nullsoft's site within hours. But copies of Gnutella, which helped pioneer decentralized file-sharing, had already been made. It went on to become the backbone of popular networks, including Bearshare and Morpheus.


  Given the 24-year-old Arizonian's freewheeling tendency to buck authority, Frankel and his cohorts couldn't resist a repeat. On May 28, a seemingly innocuous bit of beta software called Waste popped up on the Nullsoft site. Apparently named after a secret postal system in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, Waste came with a little description, explaining that it enabled secure communication and file trading for small, trusted groups of people.

Waste is just the latest innovation on a new kind of software for creating private networks, or "darknets." These gated communities run on the Internet but are open only to those who belong to the private network. Unlike standard corporate intranets designed to last for years, darknets are almost organic, since they're set up by individuals with common interests who form a grass-roots group that can last a week or a year and then disperse.

These mini networks are gaining appeal from people across the spectrum, from music- and movie-file sharers eager to escape the scrutiny of the Recording Industry Association of America to corporations, libertarians, and political dissidents who want to avoid the prying eyes of rivals and governments and reestablish some security within the wide-open Internet.


  How does Waste work? Individuals download the software onto their computers and then connect with other Waste users. They also have to exchange digital keys to link to the private networks, called meshes. Then the software uses encryption to mask files that are sent between people on the meshes.

Waste exploded like a land mine as news of its release swept through techie online forums, blogs, and news sites. As with Gnutella, AOL scurried quickly to pull it down from the Nullsoft site. A warning appeared in its place, stating that the release was unauthorized and directing people to destroy the copies they had downloaded. Both Frankel and AOL declined to comment.

Nevertheless, Waste has taken on a life of its own. Copies started popping up online, and Waste is now available on at least 75 Web sites, based on a Google search of "Waste mirrors." Although it's difficult to know how many copies are being made, Jamie Turner, a computer science student in Los Angeles, says a version he and other programmers worked on in June is being downloaded hundreds of times a day from his site.


  Techies are working to improve the code, sharing ideas on such sites as open-source software haven SourceForge. Some are even ginning up similar programs that won't run afoul of AOL if it decides to take legal action. Meanwhile, Waste devotees have set up Internet forums and Yahoo! (YHOO ) newsgroups to discuss problems and exchange the "Waste Keys" needed to get onto the meshes.

"Waste could be the way people go, although it will take many changes and improvements before that will happen," says Tom Higginson, who runs a chat site for Waste enthusiasts. Nullsoft strikes again.

By Heather Green in New York

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